Anyone who’s watched Saturday Night Live in the last few years is likely familiar with the offbeat work of Kyle Mooney. He’s responsible for a number of the shorts and sketches that get a bit weird, and while they may not hit the mark for everyone’s sense of humor, I’ve always found them interesting, at least. With Brigsby Bear, Mooney takes an unusual approach to a story that, at its beginning at least, has been told in some form before.
James (Mooney) has grown up watching an educational series called The Adventures of Brigsby Bear, and he obsesses over the show’s deep lore. One day, though, the home he shares with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) is raided, and James discovers that those parents actually kidnapped him decades earlier, then kept him in an environment that taught him to fear the outside world – going so far as to create the Brigsby Bear world just to teach him. As he enters the outside world, James largely takes things in stride, awkwardly learning to communicate with his actual family and others in the world as he sets out to create a Brigsby Bear movie.
Brigsby Bear‘s approach to James’ situation is interesting, in that he doesn’t really exhibit any of the trauma one might expect after finding out one’s entire life was a lie. The film acknowledges that others anticipate such a reaction by looping in a therapist (Claire Danes), and it’s clear that James’ real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) are struggling to adapt. But James is more curious than anything, with his eagerness to create his Brigsby movie driving him. By pursuing the creation of the film, James has an outlet to avoid directly dealing with everything he’s going through. At the same time, though, the film gives him a way to bring some sense of relief from a radically different world than he’s known.
As both screenwriter and star, Mooney succeeds at making James someone who’s clearly emotionally stunted from his experiences, but in a way that’s endearing. I hesitate to call James “childlike,” because it diminishes the complexity of the character. Instead, he’s just struggling to adapt, and he finds an outlet that allows him to bridge the world he knew with the world he’s discovering. There’s something refreshing about a film involving a heavy topic like child abduction, and showing how an unbridled imagination, channeled into art (regardless of the quality of the art), can work to save someone.